This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Staying connected

Elwood Yoder recently joined The Mennonite online’s blogging team. He teaches history in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He has taught high school history and social studies courses for 34 years, since 1988 at Eastern Mennonite High School. Elwood has written seven books, including congregational histories and historical novels. Elwood is Editor of Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, and he is also Editor of  Today, a publication of Eastern Mennonite School. He writes a history column in the Virginia Mennonite Conference Pathways periodical.

I don’t really need to go to church anymore.  Almost 60, with three grown kids, and no need to take them to Sunday school, I’m free. A cup of coffee and The Washington Post sometimes seems like a good alternative to driving to church on a Sunday morning.

In the 19th century, Virginia Mennonite Conference services were held in a different district church building each Sunday of the month. If the meetinghouse was too distant for their horse and buggy to travel, folks stayed home. In the 20th century, with automobiles, Mennonites began attending church almost every Sunday, still rotating churches in the District, until their own church started meeting every Sunday during the 1940s or 1950s.

Most Sunday mornings there’s no question about going and my wife and I drive to church–but why? I’m a slight introvert, and I need time at home on the weekends to recharge before my people-intensive teaching job starts early Monday. Perhaps it was extroverts who made the decision to meet every Sunday. Although my pastor does a good job preaching in new and creative ways, I’ve heard most of the topics before since I’ve been to seminary and have spent years teaching high school Bible classes. On a rare Sunday morning, when a writing or research deadline looms, my wife notices and tells me to work in the study instead of going to church, which gives me joy. But I feel guilty about it.

During the first week of April, I took a group of Eastern Mennonite High School students to work in a soup kitchen in the Trinity Lutheran Parish, 9th Street, New York City. We served several hundred men and women who filed through for a free meal at the church.  I’ve taken students to Trinity before, but this time I had a nice chat with Delores, a woman who cooks and manages the food for the soup kitchen. A wonderful hostess, about my age, Delores explained about the folks she serves, and that the homeless can always find food around New York, though they may have to travel to do so. “If you want to starve here, you have to starve yourself,” she blurted.

I had been thinking about the notion of attending church every week and realized that what she had just stated applied to me. I don’t want to starve, so, yes, I’ll go to church again next Sunday.

Then there are times I wonder about staying connected to Mennonite Church USA. I’ve attended seven assemblies and loved them, but I’m watching the institution of denomination crumble. When I spoke out in Gospel Herald and at Virginia Conference delegate sessions in the mid-1990s about not integrating, I said I didn’t think that adding MCs (Old Mennonite Church members) to GCs (General Conference Mennonites) would produce a new denomination equal to the membership of the two groups. Today, MC USA is around 79,000 members, less than half of the sum of the two combined groups before integration 15 years ago.

Though I had misgivings about integration, I followed my congregation’s lead and voted in the affirmative as a delegate at our summer Virginia Conference in 2001, when VMC voted to join the new denomination.

The declining numbers in MC USA discourage me, partly because whereas I used to be theologically moderate, now I’m considered by some a conservative. As an example of how this shift has taken place, I chaired the Northern District of the Virginia Conference in 2001 when five of 18 District congregations left VMC over issues related to integration. Watching churches leave MC USA, both in Virginia and beyond, leaves me unnerved and wondering about the nature of institution and whether it’s worth trying to support it. But I will.

The Seafarers International House in Union Square, New York, is a hotel ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and I’ve taken student groups to it many times for week-long visits to Manhattan. The Seafarers takes the approach of being a “port call” for sailors who come in off the ships. I always see men in the hotel who are on leave from international commercial ships.

MC USA is like the Seafarers House, I guess, a “port call” for Mennonites across the United States. Will I continue to stay connected, and attend assemblies, like the one coming up in Orlando?  Most likely, and it’s on my calendar, though it may be about as easy to stay home and ride out the storm.

When I finished working with my students at the soup kitchen on April 7, I realized I had carried a closet key away from the church, so I rode a bus back to the church and delivered it to a relieved kitchen staff member. The pastor of the Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish happened to be at the door and we met. He soon figured out I was a Mennonite and asked “Are you with the Mennonites here in New York?”

In an ultra-slow split-second time lapse of indecision, I realized that a moment of truth for me had arrived. Was I connected to them or not? My mind went to one of the MC USA churches I was aware of in Manhattan, whose website I had reviewed, and which differed greatly from my own convictions, but I replied “I am.” And I am. I want to stay connected to MC USA in spite of the wide differences in belief.

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